Why is pinball illegal in some cities?

4 Answers

Peter Hand

Peter Hand, I have a collection of old amusement and gambling machines

1.6k Views · Peter has 30+ answers in Law

It is because of machines like these.


This is a Bally Bingo. They were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. It has no flippers, and the object is to drop five balls into holes in the playfield to light a line on the back glass, for which you are awarded replays depending on how many coins you dropped in for this game.

Possibly, LOTS of replays. Twenty, a hundred, five hundred ... The replay counter in the top left corner goes up to 999. On some Bingo pinballs it goes up to 9999.

What are you going to do with 500 replays? Stand there for the next 24 hours playing them off? Heck no. The attendant checks over his shoulder to make sure there are no cops watching and pays you off. This is a gambling machine just the same as a slot machine, and in fact, when electric machines started to appear in the 1950s they were based on Bally Bingo circuits and features. These games were operated by the same shady characters with Italian names who operated slot machines, and authorities in cities like New York recognized what they were and banned them. But how do you describe it? Well, it's a machine that gives replays! And that description caught nearly all amusement pinballs too. Which is why, on some old pinball machines, instead of replays you get extra balls. The extra ball games were developed specifically to get around this replay ban.

The Last of the Bingo Kings

Incidentally, although they might look boring, the Bingo pinballs are a hell of a lot of fun to play once you understand them, and very addictive.

Updated 10 Nov 2015 · View Upvotes


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Stephanie Vardavas

Stephanie Vardavas, Former Assistant General Counsel, MLB and Nike

8.8k Views · Stephanie has 390+ answers and 36 endorsements in Law

When I was a Yale student in the 1970s, our on-campus pinball machines were not allowed to give free games, because that was considered gambling, which was against the law in Connecticut. They could give free balls but not free games.

Perhaps a similar theory is at play here?

Written 5 Nov 2015 · View Upvotes


JG McLean

JG McLean


Giuseppe Longo and Peter Hand explained the historical reasons.

Today, anywhere in the US where pinball remains technically illegal, it is likely due to an old or obsolete statute that is not actually enforced (similar to the oft-apocryphal "crazy laws" that make up click-bait articles now and then, like "it is illegal to drive with a bear in the front seat in Arkansas".  

The most high-profile such case was closed recently in Oakland, CA, where an old law did prohibit the games, but hadn't been enforced in years:

California Town that Banned Pinball 80 Years Ago Will Finally Legalize It

Written 10 Nov 2015 · View Upvotes


Giuseppe Longo

Giuseppe Longo, born NYC; grew up London; now Puebla. + lived in Rome, Mexico City, Taipei et al


Pinball has evolved in different ways over the years, but the laws haven’t.

When many of those laws were made, pinball was not so much like it is in the West since the second half of the 20th century (a game of skill with flippers to hit the ball, played purely for fun), but closer to how it has evolved in Japan, Pachinko.

Basically, back in the first half of the 20th century pinball was just gambling: you dropped a ball in, it would hit pins on its way down, randomly affecting its course, and it would finally end up in one of several holes that decided whether you won a prize or lost your money.

Some U.S. politicians felt this was something they had to “do something about”, based on a variety of claims: immoral gambling, corrupting youth, organized crime etc. So they made laws against “pinball”, based on what pinball was then, not on what it became later. (In fact, the laws help stimulate the evolution of pinball away from random luck towards skill.)